Finally, the speculation can all be put to rest. Jerry Tillery, the first commitment of the 2015 recruiting class for Notre Dame way back in June of 2013, is set to enroll at Notre Dame next week.
Unless he pulls an Anzalone, which is not quite a Greenberry and not near as bad as a Vanderdoes, all the speculation of him staying home to play LSU can put to bed. (Of course, he could pull a Tee Shephard, but let's try not to even think about that.)
Tillery is a player with tantalizing tools. He has the body that looks like he could one day develop into an All-American left tackle and has outstanding feet and balance for a young man that weighs over 300 pounds. Everything about him as a football player makes you think he could one day follow in the footsteps of players like Zack Martin and Ronnie Stanley, both of whom worked under offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.
In saying that, I think I had the same initial reaction as most Irish fans that follow recruiting when I heard that Tillery is no longer going to come in at offensive line, but is going to start his career at Notre Dame at defensive tackle: huh?
This is a player who most recruiting analysts consider to be one of the top offensive tackle prospects in the nation. He participated in elite events like The Opening and the US Army All American Bowl as an offensive lineman. He worked at Notre Dame's summer camp the last two years strictly at offensive line working with Hiestand.
Notre Dame did not have a need at defensive tackle in this recruiting class either given that they have three defensive tackle prospects committed in this class in Elijah Taylor, Micah Dew-Treadway, and Brandon Tiassum. That's in addition to players like Jay Hayes, Daniel Cage, Pete Mokwuah, and Jonathan Bonner who signed in 2014. There really wasn't any inkling that he could be projected to play on the other side of the ball at the college level.
I suppose none of that matters now. That's where Tillery is going to be practicing in the spring. Whether it was at Tillery's urging or a decision that the Notre Dame coaches made is of no consequence. The question remains though, is he capable of actually playing defensive tackle for Notre Dame or is this delaying an inevitable move back to offensive line?
Like many good players at the prep level, Tillery started both ways for his high school, Evangel Christian, and played significant snaps on defense as well as offense as a senior. However, there is limited film available to watch of Tillery and, as I mentioned above, he participated in camps and all-star games on offense.
Fortunately, I was able to find one of his games to watch. Evangel Christian took on fellow Notre Dame commit Bo Wallace's school, John Curtis in the Louisiana state playoffs and there was a stream of the game available. The quality of the stream was not the greatest, but it at least provided a small sample size to evaluate how he looks at defensive tackle.
Here's some of my notes, both the good and the not so good, on what I saw from the big man:
Maybe I shouldn't have been as surprised as I was based on the fact that a kid his size has competed in a triathlon, but he moved well. Early in the game he did well in pursuit and was getting in on some tackles at plays run away from him. I also really liked his pad level. This was not unexpected because he has shown he is a natural knee bender as a run blocker, but it was still nice to see.
He also did a decent job of squeezing some blocks down and using his length to disengage from blockers. It obviously helps that he is such a massive kid and big body in the middle of the defense as well. It's a little crazy because he looks almost slim out there. He looks like he could easily weigh over 330 and carry it pretty well.
The not so good
I didn't see any consistent explosiveness off the ball, which isn't that surprising for a player that most people project to offensive line. His snap anticipation was poor most of the game and it was evident on several plays. He lined up as three technique (outside shade of the guard) the majority of the time and one particular play he did not react quick enough off the snap of the football and the offensive tackle easily ripped past his inside shoulder and didn't even have to bother with blocking Tillery on the play. That should never happen to a three technique.
He did not get driven off the ball, even against some double teams, but he was just solid at the point of attack. A kid his size should dominate the point of attack at the high school level and he just didn't show that.
Part of the reason why Tillery was late off the ball too often likely had to do with him playing just about every snap of the game on offense and defense. He didn't get a breather once. He should be commended for that. (Although his coaches, not so much. How about taking the guy off the punt team?) In saying that, even early in the game, I didn't see him be dominant on defense. I watched a game that 5 star defensive tackle Terry Beckner Jr. played in earlier in the season and he played just about every snap on offense and defense as well. Just like Tillery, he wore down as the game went on. Unlike Tillery, he flashed spectacular traits on defense where he manhandled opponents and either made the play or at the very least disrupted what was going on in the backfield. I didn't see anything close to that same kind of impact from Tillery.
I know it's just one game, but I bring up Beckner Jr. for a good reason. As an offensive lineman, Tillery is the kind of guy who can hold his own against Beckner Jr. He's one of the few in the nation who can. He also shows he can be dominant at times as a run blocker and a pass blocker. He just didn't flash any of that type of ability as a defender in this game against John Curtis.
To me, he looked more like a 3 star player on defense. I know he's a 4 star prospect on offense.
This isn't to say that Tillery can't become a good player on defense. He certainly could once he starts concentrating on one position. But I think it will take time. If he wants to play on defense as a freshman, he's not going to beat out Sheldon Day or Jarron Jones to be a starter and I don't envision him beating out a Daniel Cage, Jay Hayes, or even Jacob Matuska to be in the two deep. He'll also have to compete with the other three freshman defensive linemen and even Isaac Rochell. That's going to be really tough for him to overcome those odds based on what I saw from him.
So, can Jerry Tillery play defensive tackle at Notre Dame? He could, but that's not where I think his best fit is. If he puts in the work, he can have a very bright future on the field for the Fighting Irish. I think his future is a lot brighter on offense, but it will be fun to watch his development on defense to see if he can prove me wrong.